by George David Kidd, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor
GMO food-label laws that are on the voting docket in twenty-four states will determine whether food products that contain genetically modified ingredients should be either labeled or banned from store shelves. Recent newspaper articles raise additional concerns that states’ voting outcomes may spur similar federal standards. State and perhaps future federal regulation, however, might be jumping the gun by attaching stigma to GMO products without any scientific basis. FDA labeling regulation, discussed in J.C. Horvath’s How Can Better Food Labels Contribute to True Choice?, provides that FDA labeling requirements are generally based upon some scientific support. Yet, no study has concluded that genetically modified ingredients are unsafe for human consumption. Required labeling based upon the belief that we have the right to know what we eat, without any scientific basis or otherwise, could serve to further undermine the credibility of food labeling practices as a whole.
The argument for labeling GMO food products is simple: we have a “right to know what we eat.” The upshot is that we should know, or be able to find out, exactly what we are putting into our bodies, and be able to make our own consumer decisions based upon the known consequences of its manufacture and consumption. But, the fact that we do not know whether our food is synthetic or its exact origins might not matter if the product is both better for us and the environment. Indeed, the FDA admits that “some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts.” If some manufactured products are better than their natural counterparts, why are we now banning/regulating GMO products before we know whether they are good or bad? If we knew they were bad in the first place, GMO products would likely already be banned.
Analysis is an important part in establishing the underlying credibility of labeling claims on food products. Without some regulation of label credibility there would be an even greater proliferation of bogus health claims on food packaging. Generally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has held that health claims on food labels are allowed as long as they are supported by evidence, and that food labeling is required when it discloses information that is of “material consequence” to a consumer in their choice to purchase a product. For example, the FDA has found that micro- and macro-nutritional content, ingredients, net weight, commonly known allergens, and whether “imitation” or diluted product is used, must be included on food labeling. The FDA has not, however, required labeling for dairy products produced from cows treated with synthetic growth hormone (rBST) because extensive studies have determined that rBST has no effect on humans. Just imagine the FDA approving food labeling claims without evaluating whether or not that claim was supported by evidence.
Premature adoption of new state or federal labeling policy would contradict and undermine the current scientific FDA standards underlying labeling regulation. The decision of whether to require labeling or ban GMOs, absent any scientific rigor as to whether GMO products are safe, only serves to perpetuate the problem of “meaningless” food labels. Further, the possible increases in food cost and labeling requirements might ultimately be passed on to the consumer without enough information to justify the increase. But now that GMOs are allegedly commonplace ingredients, shouldn’t legislation wait until the verdict is in on whether GMO products are good or bad for human health before taking further action?